Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Cable-Car Test

As the Antiplanner noted in an earlier post, transit planners of the 1960s claimed — and may even have believed — that fares collected for new rail transit projects would cover all of their operating costs and most of their capital costs. Such claims are commonly made today for high-speed rail, but most transit advocates admit that transit will never cover its costs and argue that it shouldn’t have to.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has even thrown out cost-efficiency tests imposed by his predecessor, Mary Peters, that the FTA used for judging whether it should fund a rail transit project. Instead, he wants to judge projects for their impact on livability, whatever that means.

Can your rail line top this?

But there must be some test that a reasonable transit advocate (such as many of the Antiplanner’s readers) would accept for judging whether a rail transit system is successful. For those who don’t believe transit should be profitable, I propose the Cable-Car Test.

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Jobs vs. Jobs

President Obama’s state of the union speech yesterday focused on creating jobs (a word he used at least 25 times). On the same day, Steve Jobs presented Apple’s revolutionary and magical iPad. Which will have a more positive effect on people’s lives?

Let’s look at their track records. When President Bush was inaugurated as president, 130 million Americans had jobs. By the time he left office, it was 134 million, not a big increase, but not a decline either.

The first thing President Obama did was to persuade Congress to pass a $787 billion stimulus package in order to “save jobs.” As of December, only 130.9 million workers still had jobs, 3.4 million less than when Obama took office. You can blame that on Bush, you can blame it on whatever you want, but the fact is that Obama promised to create jobs and instead we lost millions of them. At least some people would argue that one reason the economy hasn’t recovered more quickly is that businesses are unwilling to make investments in an unpredictable political environment.

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How Much Has New Rail Transit Cost?

How much money have American cities spent building “new” rail transit lines? A 2005 paper published by the Brookings Institution attempted to answer this question, but the numbers were only sketchy for some systems such as San Francisco BART and Washington Metrorail. Other systems were left out entirely, as were, of course, any lines built since 2005.

Using a variety of other sources, the Antiplanner estimates that the United States has spent more than $90 billion in 2009 dollars on new rail transit lines opened since 1970. This includes the BART system, which opened in 1972 but was under construction before 1970. This does not include the Cleveland Red Line, the only post-war rail transit line built before 1970 (unless you count the Seattle Monorail, which also isn’t included). It also does not include additions made to Boston, Chicago, and other rail transit systems that existed before 1970, or the Las Vegas monorail, which was built with private funds. Finally, it does not include money spent on lines that have not yet opened, such as the Norfolk light-rail route.

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The Transit Corollary to the Peter Principle

A dozen people were killed by Washington Metro trains in 2009. Earlier this month, John Catoe, the head of Washington Metro, graciously agreed to “take the fall” for these accidents by resigning his position as of April 2. The accidents weren’t really his fault; Catoe had been hired three years ago to help the agency deal with safety and reliability issues that were serious then; his crime was failing to fix the problems.

A two-year period of relative stability after he was hired led the American Public Transportation Association to give Catoe its outstanding transit manager award for turning the agency around. Then a series of crashes, deaths to workers, revelations about near-accidents and maintenance failures, and — most recently — the near-deaths of safety inspectors revealed that Catoe’s apparent success was largely an illusion.

Metrorail illustrates the Antiplanner’s corollary to the Peter Principle (“employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence”). The transit version of the Peter Principle is that “successful bus transit agencies rise to their level of incompetence when they build rail lines.”

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The Antiplanner’s Library: The Great Society Subway

Most DC visitors and residents consider the Washington Metrorail system to be a great success. Among them is Zachary Schrag, author of The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. But, as Schrag clearly documents, by the standards of Metrorail’s original planners, it is a dismal failure.

Back in 1962, planners projected that a 103-mile rail system would cost less than $800 million — or about $4.6 billion in 2009 dollars. Moreover, they expected that fares would cover all of the operating costs and nearly 80 percent of the capital costs (pp. 53-54).

As it turned out, the actual 103-mile system that was completed in 2001 covers all of the basic routes of that original plan, yet cost $17.6 billion in 2009 dollars, close to four times the initial projection. Fares cover only about 60 percent of operating costs and, of course, none of the capital costs.

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Relieving Traffic Congestion To Reduce GHGs

The Antiplanner and other advocates of technical solutions (as opposed to behavioral ones) to environmental problems have long argued that relieving congestion is an important way of saving energy and reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. But this is difficult to quantify.

A recent analysis from University of California researchers finds that relieving congestion on Southern California roads could reduce auto-related CO2 emissions by 30 percent. This is more than even I had expected.

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TriMet’s Latest Big Lie

TriMet’s $166 million “Westside Express Service” (WES) commuter rail is a miserable failure. After going 60 percent over budget, it is carrying only about 600 round trips per day. The amortized value of the capital cost alone is enough to buy every one of those commuters a brand-new Toyota Prius every year for the next 30 years. Those Priuses would be cleaner than the WES too.

Click for a larger view. Thanks to Steve Schopp for the photo.

So naturally TriMet wants to “celebrate WES” so much that it is advertising this great project on the back of its buses. Note that it isn’t asking people to actually ride the train, because that would never happen — no offense to Wilsonville, Tualatin, or Tigard, but from a transportation view the train goes from nowhere to nowhere, which kind of explains why hardly anyone rides it.

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Estes Park Repeals TIF District

In what leaders hope to be the start of a movement, nearly 61 percent of voters in the city of Estes Park, Colorado decided to abolish the city’s urban-renewal district. The measure, which was put on the ballot through an initiative petition, also requires voter approval before the city creates another one.

Supporters of the urban-renewal district made the usual
claim that tax-increment financing doesn’t cost anything. In fact, it takes money that would otherwise go to schools and other urban services and puts it in a slush fund for city officials to use to benefit favored developers.

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Airport Executive: Don’t Build Rail to Airport

Jim DeLong, the former aviation director at Denver International Airport, has a sensible suggestion for RTD: Don’t build a rail transit line to the airport. The airport line, which was originally supposed to cost about $316 million, is now expected to cost $1.2 billion. DeLong says that would be a waste.

Before working in Denver, DeLong directed aviation at the Philadelphia airport, which is connected to downtown and other parts of Phillie by frequent rapid train service. More than 30 million passengers a year use the airport, yet only about 2 million train trips arrive or depart from the airport station, and most of them are airport employees.

DeLong relates that he persuaded SEPTA, the transit agency, and the airport to spend $750,000 promoting the train, but had very little impact on ridership. He concludes that “Men and women who have spent a day or more traveling do not want to wait for a train, even for a short time,” especially when carrying baggage. So he proposes that RTD terminate the East line at Aurora, Denver’s eastern suburb.

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Back in the Air Again: Book Tour Begins!

The Antiplanner is spending this week on the road. First, I’ll be participating in a John Stossel show on energy issues. It’s a big topic, so I’ll be lucky to get a 30-second sound bite. The show will appear on the Fox Business network at 8 pm (ET) on Thursday.

Wednesday, I’ll be presenting my book, Gridlock, at the Cato Institute in Washington. Loyal Antiplanner opponent Michael Replogle and relatively neutral Anthony Downs will provide their candid reviews of the book.

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